Ever dreamed of running a climbers' refuge in sunnier climes? Ben Williams catches up with climbing couple Nic and Ella to share their journey of dusting off crags and building a place in the Spanish sun.
It takes a certain sort of person to embrace the tumble of loose rocks as part of their job, or spend days hanging around on an old rope with a crow bar hanging from their climbing harness. Yet the dirty business of crag development is an important part of the work Nic and Ella signed up to when they moved to a remote Catalan village in October 2012 in pursuit of their dream – to set up a climbers’ refuge and raise their young family in the mountains.
Ella, a lithe 35 year old who has climbed f7c+, smiles from beneath a battered climbing helmet. It is a hot day in the mountains but cool in the shade at their new ‘Gypsy Camp’ crag, and Ella is in good spirits. “It’s certainly a good test of your relationship!” she says as her partner levers rubble into the gulley alongside.
As dedicated climbers, Nic and Ella’s choice of the beautiful Lleida village of Abella de la Conca was in part motivated by the sheer quality – and quantity – of the climbing surrounding their home. The rock had the obvious potential to attract the client base they would need to support their climbers’ refuge project, and with only a fraction of it being developed there was huge scope for expansion. Many of the existing routes were on the surreal limestone fins which give the village its peculiar, lost world feel, giving hard and technical, Verdon-style climbing in an adventurous mountain setting.
Since their arrival Ella and Nic have been busy bolting family-friendly sectors and steep, modern routes (up to f9a) in the fantastical arches high above the village, adding both practicality and spice to the area. Abella is now featured substantially in the new Lleida Climbs guidebook and the area is beginning to receive the attention it deserves.
But as Ella explains back at their Eco Refugi, climbing was only a part of the motivation is choosing Abella as a location. She knew the area already having lived as a part of a local Buddhist community from 2008-2010, who work remote farmland an hour’s walk up the valley. Her time amongst committed environmental activists continues to inform the couple’s approach to their business:
“We’ve done the development of the refuge according to sustainability principles and we’ll continue to develop our land on permaculture principles too”, says Ella. “Plus – without being too hippy about it – we saw that there was a possibility to live up here in a different way. We’ve got two young children and we had to make a decision about where and how we wanted to bring them up”.
In practical terms you also get a lot of property for your money in this part of Cataluña –enough to make those at the mercy of the British housing market weak at the knees. The couple’s ancient four storey property (and upwards of ten hectares of land) cost about the same as a semi-detached house in Stoke-on-Trent. Nic, however, is keen to put their purchase into perspective:
“To begin with we thought, ‘Oh, we’ll just do everything, we’ll work four days on the house and climb three days’. This lasted about three weeks. Then we thought we’d work five on the house and spend two days climbing. This lasted two weeks. Soon we were working every day on the house and climbing was a distant memory. We were climbing less than if we lived in the city near a climbing wall”.
Nic’s boundless energy makes his confession even more potent. When we talk he is busy mixing cement, having moved seamlessly from new routing to the task of constructing a yoga platform in his back yard. Tools lie scattered around the enclosed area and wooden decking of various lengths sits propped against walls and work benches. A local guy, Herman, who lives with his girlfriend in a mud hut near the river, is working with the couple to level the floor. The size of the project he has taken on is impressive and the variety of his tasks even more so: he has built stairs, tiled floors, and even built a sauna. Did he have any building skills before he came out? “Not really,” he says with a Gallic shrug. “But it’s not exactly rocket science”. The house took one and half years to finish, with a steady stream of family and friends chipping in.
Since then Ella and Nic have been busy promoting their Refugi, a PR venture whose diverse nature says much about the nature of climbing in Europe today. Firstly, the couple embarked on a two and a half month promotional tour, shaking hands at climbing walls in the UK and France and grooming the upwardly mobile international climbing community. But there was also a more modern sort of networking to do which in part involved developing the inevitable website and Facebook pages. The couple also hosted the inaugural Abella film festival in June this year, in a gesture which speaks of their understanding of the corporate conventions of the modern climbing world. James Pearson, Caroline Ciavaldini and Enzo Oddo came to climb; Nic organised corporate sponsorship and a short film was produced. Making all of this work brought Nic's background in business logistics into play – he is still a Director at luxury goods firm LVMH – but with the successful festival behind them the couple could finally sit back and watch the punters roll in.
Apart from they didn’t have a booking for six weeks after the festival. As Nic reflects with a wry smile, “Nobody thinks you can climb in Cataluña in the summer. It’s a shame because we have a very nice microclimate here in the village at c1000m”.
Fortunately the Eco Refugi now receives a steady stream of visitors as the couple’s promotional work begins to pay dividends. During our stay a team of locals arrive from Barcelona for the weekend, two Swiss turn up to climb and prospect houses in the area, and a young Danish couple arrive on the bus to begin a two week stay. The Refugi is buzzing in a host of languages on the Saturday night.
But as Abella quietens down on the Monday morning, Ella and Nic take the opportunity to squeeze away to do some climbing of their own, making the short thirty minute drive to Terradets. It is the sort of steep and merciless modern Catalan crag which as seasoned athletes the couple enjoy and they are keen to have a ‘burn’ before the sun comes onto the wall mid-morning. As they gear up and their two children potter around nearby, Ella reflects on the rigors of their journey so far:
“The hardest thing was bringing up the children and doing the house at the same time. Basically doing it all on four hours sleep. But you also have to get rid of the trappings of a London lifestyle, of shopping in Waitrose and the like. The local towns are fine but uninspiring. You go from not buying clothes in this or that expensive shop to not being able to buy clothes at all.’
But as she takes off on an 8a redpoint attempt it’s clear the family’s choice is beginning to bear fruit. With the major of the building work now complete, and with more and more visitors discovering their Eco Refugi, Ella and Nic can get back towards the business of living their dream.